The weird thing about sleeper hits is they sneak up behind you and beat the holy hell out of you, like a mugger in a dark alley. There you are, playing some game like Modern Warfare 2, a game with millions of advertising dollars telling you it’s great and you should play it. You are obediently basking in the manufactured hype when Might and Magic Clash of Heroes sneaks into your house and steals your life away. I haven’t played Modern Warfare 2 in weeks, and it seems like all I do in my free time is hold my DS.
Longtime fans of the Might and Magic series may be a little put off by Clash of Heroes at first. It has almost nothing in common with the venerable computer role playing games of yore and little in common with Ubisoft’s reboot of the series. I know I’m a total Might and Magic noob (I was less than a year old when the first game was released in ‘86) but my unfamiliarity let me judge Clash of Heroes on its own merits. Considering that aside from its title it’s basically a completely new game, it’s good to look at it fresh.
At its core Clash of Heroes is a turn-based strategy RPG. The land of Ashan is inhabited by four races—Sylvan (elves), Haven (humans), Necromancers and Mages. These four are at war with the demon horde, which returns to Ashan in search of a mystical blade that can bind demons. You play five sequential campaigns as five different young adults who are swept up in the conflict. Each race has its own unique attributes, which factor hugely into the gameplay.
Each world map in Ashan is navigated by traveling between pre-set nodes. At first I thought this would make gameplay too linear and simple, but I was surprised to find a lot of complexity worked into the maps. Secret caves, side missions, bonus items and resources are hidden all over Ashan. The nodes are really just there to keep players from getting lost, and can be navigated with either the D-pad or touch screen. In fact, all of the controls work this way; after a few hours playing with the stylus I switched over the buttons.
Navigating the overworld is all well and good, but the main thrust of the game is the brilliant combat system. When exploring Ashan you’ll encounter enemy after enemy, and engage in battle. Your formations line up along the bottom screen, while the enemy appears on the top screen. Your objective is usually to penetrate the enemy’s forces and strike the opposite side of the playing field, dealing XP damage to the enemy commander.
Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same thing to you, and this is why you must manage your formations wisely. Your units are arranged in a grid, consisting of three colors and multiple types. Line three of the same type and color in a vertical column and they’ll charge up, ready for attack. A number represents how many turns they have until they are charged, and their personal HP is presented as a health bar; this HP value also represents how hard they’ll hit when they attack.
Arrange three units of a kind in a horizontal line, and they’ll form a protective barrier. These barriers can be stacked and are essential for defense or turtling up, because they diminish the enemy forces’ attack power and can usually stop smaller units in their tracks before being destroyed. As you use basic units or they fall in battle, your forces are diminished and you must call for reinforcements.
These two basic formations can be expanded by a staggering amount of strategy. Just the three colors and types of basic units offer a lot of possibilities, but these can be supplemented by different kinds of basic soldiers and elite units. Elites offer unique and powerful attacks, but require two or more basic units behind them to activate and take longer to charge. They must also be enlisted from special garrisons for cash and resources; they don’t infinitely reinforce like the basic types, giving you incentive to preserve them from being killed needlessly. Using elites takes some clever planning but the benefits of their unique attacks more than make up for it. Priests heal your HP, deer soldiers can bypass enemy barricades, and angels literally bring the finger of god down onto the field, striking a devastating blow.
Using these attacks, or any attack for that matter, takes solid strategy. Each turn you typically get three moves to work with. Every time you rearrange a unit, delete one or reinforce your position, you use up a move. Once your moves are gone it’s the enemy’s turn, and you’ll soon find yourself thinking several moves ahead as you agonize over your methodically built offense. Thankfully, three moves aren’t all you have to deal with if you have a little luck and shrewdness on your side.
The combat system has some puzzle elements to further deepen the strategy. Deleting units to bring others into formation can touch off chain reactions, building new attacks or walls and granting bonus moves. Attacks can be linked by powering two formations of the same kind in the same turn, or they can be fused by charging one behind the other, doubling attack power. Fusing two charged master units like a gryphon is pretty hard to arrange but results in a ludicrously powered attack. But each battle is different, and the units you used last time might not work in their current configuration. You must plan for different enemies by swapping different units in and out of active service. An angel or Treant is a force to be reckoned with but they take several turns to charge—battles with faster foes with ravage your slow-moving units and are better fought with quick charging archers, spearmen and plenty of barricades.
You’ll also have to make good use of the special items hidden throughout Ashan. These charms are usually awarded after tough fights or found in secret areas. They can double the punch of your linked attacks, increase your chance of a critical hit or even bring you back from the brink of death, but you can only equip one at a time and you can’t switch to a new one during battle. A careful rearranging of your units and charms can turn an insurmountable battle or impossible boss fight into a winnable scenario.
Then, of course, there is the magic system. As you link attacks, damage the enemy or take damage yourself, a special magical attack gets charged. Once it’s ready you can use it at any time without spending a move. Some, like the Sylvan sniper shot, can net a decisive victory, while the Haven holy shield can save your life from an unstoppable enemy attack. Still, you shouldn’t pull off a magical attack as soon as it’s ready. Like everything else in Clash of Heroes, these magic abilities must be used wisely.
And there are five campaigns of this, five races to play, each one with different basic and elite units, different abilities, special attacks and attack stats. You won’t just be changing tactics between battles, but as you switch faction, between campaigns as well. This endless strategy mixed with puzzling makes Clash of Heroes the gaming equivalent of crack cocaine. I don’t even like turn-based RPGs and I can barely put the game down long enough to write my review.
There are a couple annoyances, though. For one, you can’t see what level an enemy is or what his units are until you’ve accepted a challenge to a fight. It’s kind of mysterious, but can sometimes lead to you fighting an enemy six levels above you and with a full complement of maxed out elite units. The only options in these scenarios is to either get your butt kicked, win by a miracle or retreat, the last one costing you resources.
Your units will also charge onto the field in a totally random formation. You could have lines of troops in perfect position for multiple chains and powered elites, or a homogenous mess that will take you several moves and turns to arrange into anything useful. This adds to the uncertainty and some might say to the excitement, but in the harder, lengthier fights where the difference between victory and defeat lies with a few critical moves this randomness can greatly influence the outcome, giving you either a strong start or starting you with a disadvantageous jumble of units.
These are only minor concerns in gameplay, making Clash of Heroes just a bit too hardcore (read: frustrating) at times for a real-time RPG lover like myself. The rest of the game sparkles, however, and not in an overbearing high budget way. Clash of Heroes looks and plays like the best game for your SNES or Genesis that you never had back in the mid 90s. It takes full advantage of the DS’s 2D graphical abilities, rendering gorgeous background worlds and lively battlefields. Every unit class has its own unique sprite and accompanying silky animations, giving your company of soldiers a real personality. The sprite morphing effects and attack visuals pop right off the screen—the kind of graphics you wish your games had back when you were playing your SNES and didn’t have a reference point for 3D visuals yet.
The art style has strong anime influences, with each character portrait resembling the ones from some of the best old JRPGs. This stylistic choice might put off gamers looking for a harder edge in their Might and Magic, but for me it made it even more like the 16-bit games I grew up with. As I was battling a necromancer I couldn’t help but notice how cute his little zombie minions were, and the next minute I was cursing them as they shambled through my ranks, their bones forming hardened barriers against my attacks. In both sprite and character art Clash of Heroes mimics the best of Square’s golden age—you know, back when they made stuff like Chrono Trigger and weren’t suing the pants off of their biggest fans.
Like the graphics the audio represents the best you can do with midi music and sound effects. The satisfying shank of units lining up into an attack, the moan of a vampire floating past your defenses, the sickening impact of an attack that got through—it’ll all be etched into your mind’s ear after a few hours of playing. The music is excellent—I didn’t think developers knew how to do great orchestral midi anymore—but there are only a handful of pieces that play during battle. It may repeat a bit too much but don’t be surprised if you’re humming along with the epic melodies as you stack your soldiers and plan your attack. The music is just another facet of a consistently triple-A experience.
Clash of Heroes represents the best mixture of RPG tropes from multiple genres. The art style and overworld are distinctly 16-bit JRPG, while the combat and strategy have strong American influences. It’s all wrapped up into a beastly quest easily spanning more than 30 hours of gameplay, with a competitive local multiplayer for when you’ve finished the main game and want to see how your friends stack up.
Back in July at Ubisoft’s Nintendo event, I regretted not having time to do a full hands-on with Clash of Heroes. Now I’m kind of happy that I didn’t—it made the eventual surprise even better. Just be careful with Might and Magic Clash of Heroes—it contains a dark power. It can eat your life. Like Tetris, Clash of Heroes will have you seeing formations of troops when you close your eyes at night. I was literally in traffic the other day next to a line of black cars with a red one in the middle, thinking that if I moved the red car, the black ones could charge up.